For holiday decorations or gifts, green thumbs love forcing bulbs.
Pots of flowering amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus bulbs make lovely additions to your holiday decor. They also make great gifts. While amaryllis can be coaxed into blooming year after year, narcissus bulbs bloom just once. But that's not a big drawback, as much of the pleasure lies in watching these flowers grow, not just enjoying the blooms.
It's really easy to force paperwhite narcissus, because they don't require any special treatment. These small bulbs each produce one or two stems crowned with a cluster of small, ivory-colored, starlike blossoms.
Amaryllis require more care, but these large bulbs send up one or more thick stems, each usually topped by four enormous lily-like blooms in vibrant shades of red, pink or white.
Arrange the bulbs close together in a relatively shallow container that has no drain holes. An odd number of bulbs looks best. They don't need any nutrients because you'll just toss them once they've finished blooming, so you can plant paperwhites in decorative pebbles, stones or marbles instead of potting soil.
Plant each bulb deep enough so that it's anchored in place and won't topple over as it gets taller. (The pebbles or soil should reach about halfway up the sides of each bulb.) Add enough water to cover the lowest part of the bulbs, then set the container in a dark, cool location for several days.
After a few days, move the container to a sunny location. The more light the plants receive, the more compact they'll be. Monitor the water level daily, adding just enough to keep the roots moist. The little flowers will open sequentially, over two or three weeks.
Once the flowers dry up, toss the bulbs, wash the pebbles and save them to use next year.
It typically takes about six weeks from planting for an amaryllis bulb to bloom, so if you want flowers by Christmas, you'll need to buy a plant that was potted several weeks ago. Then, all you have to do is put them in a sunny window, water them every few days, and rotate the pot periodically so the plant doesn't grow toward the window.
If you're not in a rush to see the flowers, or receive a bulb as a gift, here's how to get it growing: Pot up a bulb or, for a more spectacular display, put three in one container. (Choose one variety so they bloom at the same time.)
Choose a container that has a drain hole, but is only about half an inch larger that the bulb's diameter. Fill the container with fresh potting soil, but don't bury the bulb. Set it so only the lower third is below the surface. Water the soil thoroughly, and continue to water whenever the soil feels dry.
Once you see a flower stem emerging, move the container to a bright, sunny location. (If that location is quite warm, move the amaryllis to another location once it begins blooming, so flowers last longer.)
Pinch off flower remnants as they fade. When the plant is through blooming, move it back to that sunnier location, and treat it as you would any sun-loving houseplant, watering it regularly and fertilizing it.
You may keep the amaryllis there year-round, where it will bloom in early spring the following year. Or put it out in your garden over the summer months, then bring it indoors, let it go dormant, and start it again for bloom next winter.
Deb Brown is a garden writer and former extension horticulturist with the University of Minnesota.